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Why the increase in villain and anti-hero movies like Venom is such a welcome change

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Jan 17, 2020, 1:51 PM EST (Updated)

Most superhero movies — and there's a lot these days — stand or fall based on the quality of their villains.

The late Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, while most of us only remember how silly Tom Hardy sounded as Bane in its follow-up The Dark Knight Rises. Tom Hiddleston's Loki and Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther are bad guys that helped define the heroes they faced, although villains that good (or bad) tend to be few and far between. The most disappointing superhero movies offer only weak or unmemorable villains, even those we may love as comic book characters.

Comic book creators long ago realized they could do some interesting things by giving villains their own comics, whether it's Daredevil baddie Kingpin or his pseudo-sweetheart Elektra. Fan interest in comic book villains has helped pave the way for studios to start giving the baddies more love over the next couple years.

Whether or not you were a fan of Warner Bros' 2017 attempt at bringing DC's Suicide Squad to the screen or not, it was an interesting experiment for sure. To many, the best part of that movie was finally seeing the Joker and his brain-damaged lady-love Harley Quinn together on the big screen, and Margot Robbie's portrayal of the latter has connected enough with fans that Warner Bros. wanted to do more with her.

Harley is getting her own Birds of Prey movie in the next year or so, directed by Cathy Yan. We'll have to see if that movie includes Leto's Joker, because it will put Harley into a new team with four female heroes — Black Canary, the Huntress, Cassandra Cain (Batwoman) and Detective Montoya — all big names in the Bat-verse. Harley's kind of a special case, because she's the counter-point to Catwoman, being in love with the Joker vs. Batman. In most cases, that would make Harley a straight-up villain, but she has had her own comic for years and maybe Warners is hoping to clear up that grey area by teaming her with other heroes.

The Joker is also getting his own movie, except that this will be a darker, presumably R-rated offering with Joaquin Phoenix in the make-up and Todd Phillips (The Hangover) behind the camera. If the trades are to be believed, Martin Scorsese wants to tell his own Joker tale with Leonardo DiCaprio, but it makes one wonder how to sell the Joker in a movie without having his nemesis the Batman? Since Suicide Squad is the only super-villain movie that's hit theaters so far – and that did pretty well, all things considered – it's certainly a risky endeavor.

Long before the Shazam! movie went into production, Dwayne Johnson had been talking about playing the hero's arch-nemesis, Black Adam. Although Johnson himself probably won't appear in the April 5 release, he has said that Black Adam script is in pretty good shape. Once again, a villain is being introduced separately from their corresponding hero; maybe they'll be connected films, but will anyone who doesn't comics even be aware who Black Adam is or is that movie all about The Rock?

The next "Marvel" movie will be Sony's Venom starring Tom Hardy (yes, him again), out this October. Although in recent years, Venom has taken on more of an anti-hero role in the comics, his origins are that of a Spider-Man villain, and we'll have to see whether Ruben Fleischer is able to use any of the Spider-ties with which we're familiar or if this Venom will be a completely different thing. Maybe Venom isn't quite as known as the Joker, but the character certainly has potential to work either as a hero or villain.

For some time, producer Avi Arad had been talking about doing a Sinister Six movie for Sony, which would bring together some of Spider-Man's greatest villains. At this point, who knows which villains and which incarnations we might see from a series that's been rebooted twice… if this movie ever happens? One would expect Michael Keaton's great take on the Vulture to be among them and possibly some of the villains from the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home. Less immediate as a super-villain movie is the planned Silver and Black that will team Spidey's criminal pseudo-allies Silver Sable and Black Cat – like Harley and Catwoman, where they fall on the villainous Kinsey spectrum tends to vary.

It's also good to remember that Deadpool was originally introduced as a villain in The New Mutants. Like the DC counterpart that inspired him, Titans rival Deathstroke, he's a paid assassin, and there really should be no grey area when you start killing people for a living, even if he's ventured further into anti-hero territory thanks to Ryan Reynolds.

Yet, it's not all wine and roses for villains. Some might remember how badly a Catwoman movie starring Halle Berry failed in 2004, and Jennifer Garner's Elektra, also not quite a villain, didn't do much better as a solo venture. That's just one of the possible hurdles Todd Phillips' The Joker will have to contend with.

It might be too early to tell if so many villain-centric movies can be considered a good thing, because a.) we don't know how many of these movies will actually get made and b.) we have no idea how good any of them might be. If Joaquin Phoenix gets an Oscar nomination playing the Joker a la Ledger, then maybe this sort of thing will be taken more seriously among the studio's number-crunchers. If not, there are plenty more heroes to star in potential sequels and spin-offs, and the villains will just have to go back to sharing their screen time.